Can writers become creative anywhere?

What’s your location?

What’s your location?  

As authors become mobile, is the locationality of writing becoming a thing of the past?

Writers have to do the funniest things to extract prose from themselves. Some need to wear a suit and tie and sit at a desk signing their name over and over again till the story comes; others can only write in their pajamas; some need to pour a stiff martini or three down the gullet before they can approach the sheer cliff-face of the blank page; some need the same chair, desk and anglepoise lamp; some can only write around dawn, others only in the dead of night. Trawling through articles and interviews one can put together a whole anthropology of the act of writing creative prose, and yet another that looks at how poetry comes about. What is perhaps somewhat less copiously examined is the whole business of where writers write, the whole issue of writerly location.

In terms of placing where the crime takes place, there are several classic models. One is that of the writer as a wealthy man (usually a man) of leisure, who has time to travel and observe life keenly, and then the time and the financial wherewithal to sit and write about it. A variation: the man is not particularly moneyed but he’s a government official, which takes care of daily needs, with a post that requires him to travel, on slow river barges and slower elephants, which provides the excuse and the time for the movement and its documentation or fictionalisation.

Then there is the journalist-traveller who makes a living writing for his newspaper, but with his travels also providing him the raw material for both diary/ travelogue and fiction. In contrast to this are the great writers who never leave home or never seem to, staying rooted in Manhattan or Mysore.

The exiled writer

Another classic category is the writer who is forced into exile. Within this there are two different tendencies: the exiled writer who can write about nothing but the homeland from which he has been sundered, and the one who manages to write about both the place she or he has left as well as the one where they’ve put down their bags.

The other big cliché one can think of, and this one applies to the travellers as well the home-hounds, the exiled ones as well as the ones who are celebrated by the powers that be, is that of the writer writing in a café, not far from home, perhaps, but able to put herself or himself in this delicious, quotidian bonsai-exile.

As you imagine the writers in their locations, a certain meta-narrative or scenario develops, accruing around the figure of the writer in our imaginations. Tolstoy on his snowy estate, Tagore on his river boat, Mark Twain on a very different river-boat or a sea-liner, or him in different hotels across the world, Woolf in London or at the seaside, in rooms of her own; government officers George Orwell or Bibhutibhushan on their official tours to distant corners of Bihar, Bengal and Burma; Faulkner in Mississippi, Narayan in Mysore, Bashevis Singer in New York; Pasternak exiled at home in Russia, Solzhenitsyn exiled in Vermont, Nabokov making a go of it, switching from Russian to English, Kundera in Paris, moving from Czech to French. And as for the prose-merchants frequenting cafes, the list is endless, the cafes changing from Paris to Bogota to Mexico City to San Francisco to Edinburgh.

Another romanticised division could be between the writers writing in the machine of the metropolis and the (supposed) quiet of the countryside. The small hermit’s cottage on the craggy sea-side clifftop as opposed to the anonymous loft in the city; the packed earth of porch of the village hut, with the hurricane lantern at night, as opposed to the tubelit study or dining room; the table under the tree with a view of the rolling vineyards, as opposed to the finely appointed study next to the spacious living-room which turns into an intellectual salon every other evening.

In another zone, in descriptions and photographs of marginal writers’ homes around Kolkata some odd similarities pop up. Small flats, holes almost, with perhaps one room where the writer has created a whole world around themselves, books teetering above their heads on all sides, their bed the platform where they sleep, sit, watch TV, read and write.

Earlier, the rooftop garret, too hot in the summer, too wet in the monsoon, too cold in the winter was a typical lair for a Bangla writer, transforming into the crowded ground-floor flat as the man (again, usually a man) developed a family.

A curtain in-between

For instance there is the example of Manik Bandopadhyay, who many consider to be greatest of all the Bangla novelists. Living in penury, supporting a wife and children, Bandopadhyay’s father suddenly needed to move in with them; in the room where he wrote, Manik put up a curtain, cutting the space in half; on one side was his desk and the worlds he was rendering, on the other side was his ailing father.

From a very different world again, there are the writers writing while holding down a day job that has nothing to do with any kind of literature or journalism. These are the ones who scribble away in the slow hours in offices while running small businesses, minding shops, checking accounts ledgers, finishing chapters between overseeing the unloading of trucks.

The point of going through all these places and scenarios, and with such naked nostalgia, is to ask the question whether this locationality of writing is now becoming a thing of the past. With the new(ish) technologies available to us, we writers are far more mobile; many more of us are mobile, and we can now carry our ‘study’ and our ‘desk’ with us, writing wherever there’s a small ledge for our laptops or even just space to tap into our phone devices. This is quite different from earlier times: while a notebook and a pen didn’t require much space, everything around it somehow did — it took longer to travel, to move, to transport working texts and finished manuscripts from one place to another, and all this had the effect perhaps comparable to slow cooking. Now, in terms of writing, as we move from microwaves and ready-made meals to quite fancy fast food, I wonder if the act of writing is being fundamentally altered. And, if it is, then how much longer can the act of reading be protected from developing some answering alteration?

In common with the readers of the first novels, one of the things we still value in a book is a sense of place. It remains one of the most important things you can find in a story — where the writer takes you to a completely new location or transforms one that you think you know well, dismantling and reconstructing the place in surprising ways. Till now, an important part of the act of reading a novel has been about staying still as a reader and watching the characters move about in whichever detailed arena. Now, maybe readers have started feeling that they can only look at the movements of the characters in a book through their own constantly shifting vantage points — the way you trawl open tabs on the net, the way you fast forward and rewind through a captive movie file, the way an attorney looks at a brief, or a security operative a dossier.

Till now, ‘an airport novel’ was a pejorative term, indicating a shallow narrative you read while waiting for flights. Now, without any irony, an airport novel could be one that was written in transit, carrying all the marks, distractions and turbulence of uneasy travel. In this transformation perhaps the older, so-called classical novel narratives will also start to find their integrity of place decomposing. If that happens, it could lead to one of two outcomes: one, the generations to come will lose all interest in where and under what conditions a particular novel was written, just focusing on what ‘happens’ in a story, or, the opposite, the nitty-gritty of the plot will fall away, as Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini puts it, ‘like a partisan dead before May 1945’, leaving only deep historio- anthropological interest in the context and location of these characters who spent their lives madly creating characters.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary. He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2020 10:44:50 AM |

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